This Harm Reduction Program Treats Alcoholics With Wine

By Dorri Olds 07/11/16

Ottawa's Managed Alcohol Program was created to help the local homeless who cannot stop drinking manage their alcohol use disorders.

This Harm Reduction Program Treats Alcoholics With Wine

A group of nonprofits joined forces to run a controversial program for chronic alcoholics. The treatment? Serving residents a glass of wine every hour.

The Oaks, a homeless shelter in Ottawa, Canada, runs a Managed Alcohol Program (MAP) that provides a measured amount of wine every hour to alcoholic residents. They line up to get their “dose.” They receive seven ounces of white wine at 7:30 a.m., followed by five ounces hourly throughout the day until 9:30 p.m.

This permanent residence for the disenfranchised opened its doors in 2010 and is the result of a partnership between Shepherds of Good Hope, Ottawa Inner City Health, and the Canadian Mental Health Association. MAP was founded in 2001 at another facility to help desperate men and women who were unable to stop abusing alcohol and were living on the city streets.

“I got death threats,” said Dr. Jeff Turnbull, the head physician at the Oaks and chief of staff at Ottawa Hospital. “The addiction community is very divided about harm reduction. There are some proponents who feel so strongly about abstinence as the only treatment for alcoholism, they just couldn’t see an alternative.”

The Oaks’ wine is 13% alcohol and is brewed on site. If any alcoholic shows up intoxicated, they are denied their pour. “It doesn’t happen very often,” said Oaks staff member Lucia Ali, “but if they’re drunk, I ask them to go to their room and take a nap.”

One Oaks resident told BBC radio, “It’s not bad, the wine here. Out on the streets I was drinking mouthwash, hairspray. It didn’t taste good, but all I wanted was the effect. I don’t drink that stuff anymore—it makes me feel sick to think of it. And I drink much less here.”

“One of our clients was in the emergency department 191 times in the six months preceding coming onto the MAP,” Dr. Turnbull told BBC. “And that was just in our hospital. He could’ve been in other healthcare facilities during that time as well … There’s a profound reduction in 911 calls, hospital emergency visits, paramedic and police encounters.”

Of course, Dr. Turnbull would prefer it if the chronic alcoholics could become abstinent, but he asks if that is feasible. The good news is that these marginalized people are given care and protected from the hazards of being destitute.

Kim van Herk, a psychiatric nurse with Ottawa Inner City Health said, “They are so dependent on alcohol that it’s their most basic need. If that need is not being met, nothing else matters for them. It’s hard for other people to get their minds around how severe their addiction is—they feel like they’re going to die. But once that need is met for them, they can start looking at other parts of their life.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.